Top Ten Songs With Flute
don't make any claims for great breadth with this one; I noticed one day a year or two ago that three songs I was listening to had flute in them, and began slowly amassing others. If I had some way to check what on my shelf or hard drive actually possesses flute—without having to take days or weeks checking—I'm sure it would be a bit more diverse, but as it is this list is sort of a mini-highlight tour of some of the places you can find flute cropping up in rock and indie rock, with special emphasis on songs where the flute is more than just prog topping or the like. And no Jethro Tull, just as a ground rule.
King Crimson – The Court of the Crimson King
The astounding Children of Men only reaffirmed my love for this childhood favorite, one of the relatively few exceptions to my dislike for music with fantasy prog lyrics. The whole thing is so gorgeously overegged, that it’s almost natural that there be a flute diddling around in the background. Unlike most of the tracks here, though, this is a great song with flute rather than because of flute.
The Dears – Postcard from Purgatory
I first thought of this list just after I'd bought and was obsessed by the Dears' No Cities Left, a record which had a great immediate impact but sadly little staying power with me. I still think the best songs on it are great, but the way I used to think of the record's overlong, under-edited state as a strength has long left me. And if I were cutting, honestly, “Postcard from Purgatory” would be swift to go—but damn, would I miss that cheery, almost mocking little flute fillip that gets introduced in the sixth minute to drive the song home. It's shockingly bright and clear above the overdriven guitars of the song, and they make me wish they'd cut this down to a few brief minutes.
Hefner – The Cure for Evil
I would have assumed, back when I got it, that We Love the City would have been my favorite Hefner album when romantically happy, but nope—that's Breaking God's Heart. I really only get into the happiest hour of Britain's Largest Small Band (1996-2002) when I'm miserable. “Oh, you were the one,” sings Darren Hayman, “so console me.” And the horns do, but it's the counterpoint from the flute that really causes the end section to feel complete for me. It's not a terribly large part of the track, maybe ten or fifteen seconds, but it's absolutely crucial.
Prolapse – Framen Fr. Cesar
Although all of their albums are good, and all of them have the distinct air of nastiness that makes Prolapse so much fun, backsaturday might be a little more sludgily misanthropic than most. “Framen Fr. Cesar,” which probably means something but I don't care and haven't looked it up, highlights said sludge, with a steadily grinding bassline and drumbeat and Mick Derrick being Mick Derrick. BUT, as you may have guessed from the list, it also has a flute part. A lovely one, actually, lurking in the background for the duration but still there. Unlike the other songs on this list, all the flute really does is highlight the determined (and quite wonderful) ugliness of the rest of the song by means of contrast, but that's still a valuable task.
Teenage Fanclub – Hang On
I've already gushed about this song on Stylus, but really, words cannot express how wonderful the coda to this song (down to the “OK?”) is. The flute isn't the most striking part of it (that would be the interlocking strings or even the slow burning electric guitars), but the flute melody does tie it all together. Sublime.
Embrace – I Wouldn’t Want to Happen to You
There was some confusion here, with me initially thinking there were flutes piping away in the background of this song, and resident Embrace expert Nick Southall believing them to be keyboards instead. Sources were consulted, flutosity established, and to be honest I'm a bit disappointed. I was all prepared to include this anyway, because as much as I hate the lines “'Cause you're stone cold wise and I'm in / To what you're doing,” “I Wouldn't Want to Happen to You” is actually a lovely song, and what really made me fall for it is the delicate flute refrains after most repetitions of the chorus. They don't quite recapitulate its melody so much as they expand on it, and as the song gets busier and lusher they remain the focus. Even if they are real.
Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan
I don't go back to Young Team very much (it's not exactly my preferred version), but this song is an evergreen for me. And after each of the conflagrations that light up the track, a flute is what guides us through the long dying fall. In a song supposedly about the band fearing they were cracking up, that flute sounds like their collective voice, threading carefully through the static wilderness, and without it “Mogwai Fear Satan” would be roughly seven minutes too long.
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
I have a weirdly fraught relationship with Van Morrison. Pretty much my only real teenage rebellion was developing a sincere dislike for things my dad loves (Van, the Montreal Canadiens, and so on), only to discover in my adult years that not only did I no longer dislike these things, in retrospect my reasons weren't nearly as mature or indeed comprehensible as I thought they were. I remained skittish for years until finally cracking again, partly based on hearing again and loving “Everyone” in The Royal Tennenbaums. But my dad didn't play Astral Weeks a lot during my childhood, so while something like His Band and the Street Choir marked a joyous homecoming, this album was a bit of a revelation.
While the flute at first seems to putter around in the back of “Astral Weeks,” a few listens reveals how essential it is. The whole record is impeccably arranged, of course, but the main thrust of “Astral Weeks” is so determinedly straightforward that without some sort of melodic filigree it wouldn't fit with the rest of the record. So that flute twitters along in what, it turns out, is the foreground, Van chanting away about Hugo Ledbetter and “a home on high” in the back. I wanted to go with songs instead of albums, but I should note had I gone with albums Astral Weeks would have won it at a walk—the deployment of that most twee and graceless of rock instruments is peerless.
Mercury Rev – Something for Joey
Some of the other songs on the still frankly astonishing Boces use flute and use it well, but nowhere in their entire discography (including their disgustingly hippie current incarnation) did the Rev marry noise and pop nearly as well as “Something for Joey.” And in the middle of that hideous swirling squall? An incredibly chipper flute. Its five notes is the closest the track gets to a chorus, and it's at least as rousing as any vocal example you can think of. “Something for Joey” is an incredible song from an incredible band—that flute is possibly the single key instrument on it is only gravy.
The Delgados – Aye Today
“I've always stated of things overrated / A curse or a blessing rates high” is one of my favorite chorus lines ever both for sentiment and for the way it's sung by Alun and Emma, and when they finely, sweetly harmonize “Why all the grief for a life full of peace? / If you will ask me I'll say / Aye today,” I'm already anticipating it and then the song swells, and these church bells come in and I could nearly burst from joy despite never attending church in my life, and then that flute, and it starts low and starts going high and it keeps going up and up and up and up and then there's just that one pure high note over the church bells and the guitars and bass and drums and thank God they fade it out because I don't think I could take much more.